Sunshine Skyway Bridge turns 30 years old

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge has become such a landmark symbol for the Tampa Bay Area that it's hard to imagine anything other than those giant yellow cables linking the bay.  But 30 years ago, engineers were trying to reassure a jittery public about a brand-new bridge that had been born out of tragedy.

The current bridge -- now formally known as the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge -- was dedicated back on February 7, 1987.  Crowds of people were invited to walk the span and get an up-close look at what was billed as the longest cable-stayed bridge in the western hemisphere.

Peering over the concrete walls that day, pedestrians could get a good look at the bridge's predecessor -- including what was left of the original bridge's southbound span, partially destroyed in a tragic barge collision. 

Image 1 of 17

The M/V Summit Venture slammed into one of the two original spans during a storm in 1980, sending a large section of the bridge -- and several vehicles -- plummeting into the bay.  Thirty-five people died.

Five years and $230-million later, engineers went out of their way to assure drivers that the new bridge was safer than its predecessor.  They cited the pier protection structures, the wider space between the supports, and the motorist warning system.

Before the bridge opened, FDOT allowed WTVT cameras inside the bridge deck to see the giant cables, along with the then-innovative concrete monitoring system.

"Personally, I've talked one on one with the people involved in this project -- the engineers, up to the highest level -- when no one was around.  And I say, 'Really, tell me.  Is it really going to be safe?'  And they say, 'Without question.'  This bridge has been overbuilt, if that's possible," Florida Department of Transportation spokesperson Holly Wagner boasted at the time.

Among those on hand to dedicate the new span was Wesley MacIntire, the lone driver to survive the Summit Venture tragedy.  He seemed ready to move on, and the new bridge was a step in that direction.

"They want to forget the past, I would imagine.  Everybody does.  I want to forget it, too.  But I figured seeing something new like this would be nice, and I feel like I'm part of the new bridge," he said.

Sen. Bob Graham, who championed construction of the bridge as governor, was the grand marshal of the dedication parade.  He, too, spoke of the new bridge -- which would later bear his name -- rising out of the shadow of the tragedy.

"We have built a bridge here for the 21st Century," he proclaimed.  "This is a statement that Florida is looking to its future."

The bridge officially opened to traffic a few weeks later, on April 20, 1987.  Three decades later, FDOT says 58,000 drivers cross it everyday -- yet it appears to be holding up better than anyone could have hoped.

"We fully anticipate that it will last the hundred years that it was designed for," said Jim Jacobsen, an FDOT engineer. "Most of the maintenance we're doing now is really preventative maintenance. We're not playing catch-up. We're applying coatings that you can probably see when you  cross the bridge now that keep the concrete seal from the salts in the air."

Jacobsen says the state-of-the-art materials have helped the bridge, which has a 180-foot clearance, stand the test of time.

"We're fortunate the concrete that was used 30 years ago was a newer-type concrete design and it's very dense concrete and it's really kept the salt water out of the concrete," he said. "The bridge is actually performing better than expected for its age."